John F Kennedy – “A Nation of Immigrants”

John F. Kennedy’s A Nation of Immigrants is a must read for anyone interested in a true history of immigration in the United States. It details Kennedy’s passion for embracing immigrants through immigration reform, but was not published until after his death. He wrote the book in an effort to gain support for his plans to bring immigration back to where it was before so many restrictions were put on it. In the book he speaks of the many contributions to “American culture” imported here from the various countries. He also details the discrimination these immigrants often encountered upon entering the new land.

One of the most humorous, while disturbing, things I learned from reading this book was the fact that during World War I Germans-Americans were discriminated against and it it went so far as to refer to Hamburgers as “Salisbury Steak” and sauerkraut as “Liberty cabbage.” This is very reminiscent of the modern use of “freedom fries” to refer to French fries as a way to show a dislike for France. It’s truly amazing and disheartening how the horrors and ridiculous behaviors of our past constantly revisit us in the present. This is exactly what’s happening in the current immigration debate.

Another thing we learn in this book mimics the current assertion that all Hispanics are attempting a “reconquista” of the U.S. areas near Mexico. Similarly many U.S. citizens felt that curing World War II German-Americans would all align themselves with Hitler and be a threat to other Americans. Certainly there were some Germans that were pro-Nazi, however this was not true of the majority and many of them fought as U.S. soldiers against Hitler so it would be irresponsible and ridiculous to label every German-American a Nazi. These members of the German American Bund were probably used to vilify every German-American just as the few Hispanics that believe in regaining Aztlan are being used to represent the whole. I believe we now realize that these pro-Nazi Germans did not represent the whole. Of course today there are many U.S. citizens of many Anglo and Nordic backgrounds that currently do support Nazism, racism, and discrimination in an effort to “purify” the United States. Sadly, while we learn and advance in so many ways we cannot escape evil and hatred.

Immigration, or rather the British policy of clamping down on immigration, was one of the factors behind the colonial desire for independence. Restrictive immigration policies constituted one of the charges against King George III expressed in the Declaration of Independence. And in the Constitutional Convention James Madison noted, “That part of America which has encouraged them [the immigrants] has advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts.

For those “patriots” out there this information might be of value. I question what the anti-immigrant “patriots” think of themselves, but I truly don’t believe they are patriots as it pertains to those that fought against English rule.

But emotions of xenophobia-hatred of foreigners-and of nativism- the policy of keeping America “pure” (that is, of preferring old immigrants to new)- continued to thrive. The increase in the rate of immigration in the 1820’s and 1830’s set off new waves of hostility, directed especially against the Irish, who, as Catholics, were regarded as members of an alien conspiracy.

This same assertion is used against the Hispanics (mostly Mexicans) in the United States today in claiming they will not assimilate and that they have a grand plan to “reconquer” the southern states.. The main difference between today’s world and that of the 1820’s is the birth of the internet and the mass spread of information. What’s important to remember with so much information is that it may not all be valid and simply finding a few instances does not mean every person agrees with what you find. As a white U.S. citizen I certainly don’t agree with the Ku Klux Klan though a person may find validity in making that assumption based on my ethnicity.

In the 1950’s nativism became an open political movement. A secret patriotic society, the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, founded about 1850, grew into the American party, whose members were pledged to vote only for native Americans, to demand a twenty-one-year naturalization period and to fight Roman Catholicism. When asked about their program, they were instructed to answer. “I know nothing about it,” so people called them the Know-Nothings. Coming into existence at a time when the slavery issue was dissolving the older party allegiances, the Know-Nothings for a moment attracted considerable support. They elected six state governors and seventy-five Congressmen in 1854 and got almost 25 percent of the vote for their candidate, former President Millard Fillmore, in 1856. But soon they, too, were split by the slavery issue and the party vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

I’ve used this before to argue against the current wave of anti-Hispanic sentiment, but it truly seems lost on those vehemently desirous to label Hispanics in a terrible way. Most of these people will find excuses to back their beliefs, but truly history shows us that the propagation of fear through hateful rhetoric does not make something true. It’s truly sad that many people feel they must assume the worst in everyone. We truly need to change the way we think about one another.

The legacy of the Know-Nothings lived beyond its life as an organization. The seeds of bigotry, fear and hatred bore fruit again in the years after the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan launched a campaign of terrorism against the Negroes, and in the 1890’s the American Protective Association tried to revive popular feeling against Catholics. Other nativists began to turn their attention to the Jews. In the meantime, agitators on the West Coast denounced the “yellow peril,” and Congress in 1882 passed the first of a number of laws banning Oriental immigration. Yet, except for Oriental exclusion, congress ignored the nativist clamor, and most Americans regarded nativism with abhorrence. When a Protestant clergyman supporting James G. Blain in 1884 denounced the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion,” he provoked a reaction which may well have lost the election for Blaine, who himself had a mother of Irish Catholic descent.

Speaking of the Klu Klux Klan and their ability to secure five million members the books states:

the fall of the Klan was as dramatic as its rise. It died when a genuine crisis, the depression, turned people’s attention away from the phony issue of racism to the real problems facing the nation.

I believe this speaks to today’s elections where politicians thought their anti-immigrant rhetoric would put them in the White House. Contrary to this believe every politician with a strong anti-immigrant view has now dropped out of the race. However, we must be careful because the Ku Klux Klan is actually recruiting new members through using the immigrant hysteria and promotion of fear. There have been many recent news stories on this which you can find doing some searches on You Tube and Google News.

The book continues:

Nativism failed, not because the seeds were not there to be cultivated, but because American society is too complex for an agitation so narrowly and viciously conceived to be politically successful.

I’d like to believe this is still true today and judging by the recent elections and the caucuses it certainly seems to be. When I began this blog the angry voices from the anti-“illegal” and anti-immigrant groups scared me. I truly thought they would sway the vote and influence the undecided public through their promotion of fear. Thankfully, as demonstrated by the many unsuccessful anti-immigrant rallies, most U.S. citizens do not buy into their hate speech.

President Kennedy’s dream can still be realized. Please take time to read his book and think about ways can make the United States a more welcoming place. Please don’t let us fall back into the hatred and intolerance that we’ve seen in this country’s past – those are truly not the ideals this country was founded on.

There’s so much more in this book then I have put here. I’ve focused mainly on the hysteria against immigrants while the book spends much time explaining the contributions of each group. If you’ve read this book and would like to give your opinions I’d certainly like to read them.

Further reading?
Presidents on Immigration – Past, Present, Future – at Smart Borders Blog.


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